Fresh from his brutal coup, Abbott bemoans brutal Labor
When Julia Gillard successfully challenged Kevin Rudd for the Labor leadership, she brought the noble profession of politics in this country into disrepute. Prior to Gillard’s ascension to the office of PM, politics was a gentlemanly undertaking carried out with a spirit of fair-play. On 24 June 2010, the Gillard coup against Kevin ‘The People’s Prime Minister’ Rudd destroyed this tradition, and sullied the good name of the office of PM.
That, at any rate, has been a core theme running throughout this election campaign.
In his closing remarks at the leaders debate, for example, Abbott claimed that ‘decisions will be made by Cabinet, not powerbrokers’, implying that Gillard was somehow beholden to shadowy background figures and that he himself is just a free agent. Similarly, Abbott has tried to run the line that the sight of Kevin Rudd on the campaign trail will remind voters of Labor’s ‘political thuggery’.
To some extent, this story chimes well with people’s perceptions about the treatment of Rudd. In the recent leader’s debate in Parramatta, for example, voters expressed concern at Gillard’s toppling Kevin Rudd from the leadership, as if she had somehow subverted the will of the people.
To those of us with memories that extend beyond last week — or with access to Google — the outrage at Gillard’s rise is hilarious and, at least when it comes from Abbott, not a little hypocritical.
You only need recall that Tony Abbott came to the Liberal leadership by undermining and then toppling Malcolm Turnbull. And Abbott won the leadership with a single vote — hardly a convincing endorsement of the man or his vision.
By contrast, Gillard was elected by the Labor party room unopposed. Rudd came to office by a similar path, winning the leadership from Kim Beazley by a convincing 10 votes.
One reply to this, of course, is that Kevin Rudd wasn’t simply leader of the party. He was also the Prime Minister and was therefore entitled to more respect. Some voters seem to be outraged that a prime minister could be toppled without them being consulted.
Arguably Rudd did deserve better, but he knew better than anyone that he lived and died by the party room. Despite what many people appear to think, political parties — not the people — decide who occupies the office of PM. And they always have done, whether its the Liberal or the Labor party.
It’s a mark of the increasingly presidential style of our political culture that voters seem to think that they elect the Prime Minister. Election campaigns are, after all, conducted as if they are personality contests between the leaders. Their parliamentary colleagues are reduced to supporting characters whose role is to say ‘Hear, Hear!’ during Question Time and make up the numbers when there’s a vote.
The confusion about who elects the PM is not helped by political leaders themselves. For example, PM Rudd seemed to run his government as if he were the only one in it. And prior to the caucus vote, he claimed he had won the popular vote, as if this gave him some special claim to the Lodge.
Gillard similarly contributed to the confusion in the speeches and interviews given after her win by saying that she had not contested an election as PM and therefore did not have a mandate to govern. The implication seemed to be that this somehow qualified her right to occupy the office.
For all the focus on the Prime Ministership, and despite it seeming to be a central pillar of our political system, the office of Prime Minister doesn’t even rate a mention in the Australian Constitution.
As any first year politics student knows, the office of the Prime Minister is a convention of the Australian political system — a well developed convention — but a convention nonetheless. This means that it is possible to govern without a Prime Minister at all.
As for political thuggery, an alternative view is that all leaders have a bit of thug in them. The technical term that political scientists use to describe a person who doesn’t have the thug instinct to be leader is ‘Peter Costello’. Too much thuggery can also be a liability; the technical term for this is ‘Mark Latham’.
In the right quantity, though, thuggery can be a political virtue. If you doubt that, then ask yourself: do you really want a Prime Minister whose above politics when it comes to negotiating with powerful interests — whether they be other governments or powerful corporations and industries? As Machiavelli might have put it, getting in touch with your inner thug is not only necessary to win the leadership, it’s also necessary in the cut and thrust of politics.
If you’re still not convinced, and you prefer the rose-tinted vision of Australian politics and the office of Prime Minister, then please contact me and I’ll tell you about a unique business opportunity involving your banking details and some Nigerian business associates of mine.
- Christopher Scanlon lectures in journalism at La Trobe University as is a co-founder of www.upstart.net.au
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